The Conference Semi-finals are done, and a week that brought record-breaking hat-tricks, a shock for CSKA and a fight that never was ended up with the most consistent teams of the KHL era lining up in the final four. Everyone in the quartet – SKA St. Petersburg, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Ak Bars Kazan and Metallurg Magnitogorsk – will play in its fifth Conference Final. No other KHL team has more than four. It’s time for the best to prove their quality.
Another week, and another record at Metallurg Magnitogorsk. This time, forward Danis Zaripov was the main man after firing two hat-tricks as Magnitka swept its Conference Semi-final series against Barys. That took Zaripov to three trebles in the current playoffs – uncharted territory for any player in Russian hockey history. Hailed as ‘the king of the hat-tricks’, Zaripov responded: “I can’t stop them [calling me that]. Now they have given me the title, I will try to live up to it.” A full interview with Zaripov, and Barys defenseman Maxim Semyonov, wraps up the action from that series. Ak Bars is the next team charged with stopping Zaripov’s scoring streak.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl surprised regular season champion CSKA Moscow to advance to the Western Conference Final in six games. CSKA, noted for its high tempo, pressing game, made a solid start to the series, leading 1-0 and 2-1, but ran out of steam and lost three games in a row to crash out of the playoffs. All too often, CSKA’s forwards failed to live up to expectations, while the likes of Max Talbot and Brandon Kozun impressed for Lokomotiv. Kozun, in particular, is having a strong post-seaosn with 2+12=14 points so far, while Loko’s stand-in goalie Alexander Sudnitsin impressed after an injury to first-choice Alexei Murygin. For CSKA, Grigory Panin made headlines for all the wrong reasons, picking up two 5+20 penalties in the same incident during Saturday’s conclusive game. High hits on Talbot and Kozun ended the D-man’s contribution to the game and presented Loko with yet another power play chance as it sealed a 3-1 victory to clinch the series.
Playing without Pavel Datsyuk is like entering a boxing match with one arm tied behind your back, according to SKA forward Sergei Shirokov. Yet, after the Magic Man picked up his first career 5+20 penalty against Dynamo, the Petersburg team had to do just that. It made little difference in the end; SKA cruised to a 4-1 series win as Oleg Znarok returned to haunt the team he led to double Gagarin Cup glory. The difference was on offense, where Dynamo struggled for goals and SKA oozed attacking options. Shirokov was one of them, and his angry glare at the Moscow fans after putting his team ahead in game four of the series was one of the defining images of a hard-fought series.
Ak Bars powered into the Conference Final with a 5-0 victory over Avangard Omsk to wrap up its series in six games. But a strong performance in that last game was helped by a curious incident midway through the second period. Avangard youngster Sergei Orlov entered the game for his first shift of the post season, sought to provoke a fight with opposing forward Denis Golubev and found himself unable to get into a rumble. Golubov kept his gloves on and allowed the officials to hand Orlov a double minor for roughing. The Avangard went straight to the locker room, completing the game with six seconds of ice time and four PIMs. Avangard head coach Fyodor Kanareikin later admitted that he didn’t know what to say about the incident; Golubov took his team-mates’ plaudits for outwitting his rival as Ak Bars marched on.
The Conference Finals start next week with two intriguing match-ups involving the four most consistent teams in the KHL era. It’s a fifth attempt at the last four for every team still in the running – no other team can match that consistency.
The action gets underway in the West on Thursday, when SKA entertains Lokomotiv. It’s the third season running that Petersburg has been involved at this stage and head coach Oleg Znarok is aiming to become the first man to take three different clubs to the Grand Final. But Loko, beaten Gagarin Cup finalist in the first ever KHL season back in 2009 also has Gagarin Cup-winning experience behind the bench: head coach Alexei Kudashov ended his playing career in 2012 after captaining Znarok’s Dynamo to glory.
In the East, old foes Metallurg and Ak Bars go head-to-head once again. This is always a fierce encounter between two of Russia’s top teams and this year there’s added spice as both bid to become the first team to win three Gagarin Cups. Surprisingly, they have met only once before in KHL playoff action, with Ak Bars winning 4-1 in 2010 on its way to its second title. The series promises to be a big one for Rafael Batyrshin, the Ak Bars D-man who helped Metallurg to glory a year ago.